The 50 Best Albums of 2013
Illustration by Alex Solman
In 2013, album lists aren’t just best-to-worst rundowns – they’re ways of demarcating what an “album” is (or isn’t) in the first place.
Is a mini-album a full-length or an extended single? Should a clutch of Soundcloud demos be judged alongside a 3xLP pack? Are leaks off-limits – and, if so, why? In a year full of marketing campaign razzmatazz and big bruisers dropping surprise albums, it’s telling – and heartening – that much of the best music arrived through rogue channels. To quarantine mixtape releases, say, away from our albums list might have made sense a few years ago; now, it seems blockheaded and perverse. Mindful of not being Cnuts, we’ve no intention of holding back the tide.
Faced with navigating this increasingly complicated landscape, plenty of blogs have gone down the Grammys route of hyper-specification – Best Hip-Hop Albums That Aren’t Mixtapes; Best Albums Under 15 Minutes That Aren’t Singles; Best Albums With A 16×16 Floor Tom; Best Albums That Didn’t Feature Nile Rodgers. We’ve elected to take the other road, allowing different formats to sit happily alongside one other. It doesn’t matter if it’s lengthy or snappy, physical or invisible – if it’s a great record, it’s in it.
More so than any previous FACT list, this year’s Top 50 is a patchwork – a mix of official LP releases, Bandcamp freebies, cassettes, DatPiff drops and bootlegs. For the first time, we’ve also elected to include our favourite EPs too – rather than agonising over the cut-off point between long-form and short-form, we’ve decided simply to prioritise those collections that moved us the most.
We’ll be counting down the albums of 2013 in blocks of ten over the next five days, finishing up with the Top Ten on Friday. Grab your cans, crack open a tin, still your sense of outrage, and enjoy.
For more end of year mayhem, check out:
– The 100 Best Tracks of 2013
– The 50 Best Reissues of 2013
– The 10 Best Record Labels of 2013
– The 30 Best Album Covers of 2013
– The 30 Worst Album Covers of 2013
Use your keyboard’s arrow keys or hit the prev / next arrows on your screen to turn pages (page 1/52)
50. CREAM JUICE
You wouldn’t expect trainspotter techno from a duo called Cream Juice, of course, but Man Feelings is about as brilliantly cuckoo as releases got in 2013. It’s a proper paintball fusillade – a mile-a-minute collision of guitar skronk, skweee, free jazz and glitch. Black Dice are the obvious touchstone, but there’s all sorts of sonic horse-trading at play – whether sounding like a rattled Battles (‘Spastic Man’), OPN at warp speed (‘Spastic Man’) or Flying Lotus on the lam (‘Man Made Womb’), Man Feelings keeps the quality (and sugar-levels) high throughout. Very much a Marmite proposition, mind.
49. MILEY CYRUS
Sure, you think you’re better than Bangerz, but in a year where few albums from pop music’s big names lived up to potential (step forward Gaga, Britney and Jay-Z), Miley Cyrus undoubtedly ruled the roost. The artist formerly known as Hannah Montana spent most of 2013 successfully seeking attention from the tabloids and Twitter, but in amongst the endless coverage of the outfits, the award shows and the appropriation, few picked up on the fact that the album all of this was promoting was really good. Bangerz isn’t without its face-palm moments: the album’s rides through the country with Nelly (on ‘4×4’), on a dubstep carousel with French Montana (‘FU’) and through the barely-beating heart of monotony itself with rap game Nyquil Big Sean (‘Love Money Party’) should all have been left on the cutting room floor. Snip those, though, and you’re left with one of pop’s best recent break-up albums. And at the end of the day, surely we can all get behind Mike Will executive producing a number one album on the Billboard 100.
48. THE KNIFE
Shaking The Habitual
With its catapult aimed at the three-horned goliath of patriarchy, capitalism and looming environmental disaster, Shaking The Habitual is the most explicitly political album yet from Stockholm siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer. No longer attempting to hide their radicalism inside a Trojan horse of gleaming electro-pop, on this record The Knife express their ideas not just through their warped voices – which again feel their way inside an ambiguous third gender – but in the sounds themselves. The false binaries of electronic and acoustic, ‘real’ and ‘fake’, are battered down to create an unsettling, alien environment that’s primitive and futuristic at once.
‘Full Of Fire’ is probably the best thing they’ve ever done, bristling with deranged voices (“liberals giving me a nerve itch”) and sinister technoid shapes that subdivide and mutate like a monstrous sarcoma. The album’s “unheimlich disruptiveness” (as Maya Kalev pinpointed in her review ) was underlined by the accompanying live shows, which maddened some fans but enthralled others as the duo toyed with the concept of ‘authentic’ performance, hiding among their troupe of glitter-faced dancers and miming with fantastical instruments apparently nicked from the Star Wars cantina band.
While DX originally began life as a beat pack for Kendrick Lamar, his loss is our gain: the production pair behind A$AP Rocky’s ‘Fashion Killa’ and much of Main Attrakionz’s voluminous discography showcased their most personal and outsized work yet. Synth-laden hip hop orchestras with Final Fantasy music box melodies, DX plays like Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 through a based glass, darkly. The transcendent maximalism of ‘Poly’, the soulful stutterstep of ‘Luv You More Than Anything’, and the Aphex-nodding ‘Retailxtal’ find Friendzone at their best.
Autechre’s legend might be beyond dispute, but their latter-day run of albums haven’t exactly been easy listening. Since the career-defining LP5 back in 1998, the duo’s albums have confounded and amazed in equal measure – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. 2010’s Oversteps marked a return to the melodic accessibility of their earlier material, and Exai elevates the concept, achieving a rewarding mid-point between danger and dalliance. It’s their best record in years, and feels like not just a step forward, but an intake of breath from the duo as they consider their long, storied career. Exai takes a bit of penetrating, certainly, but give it time and you’ll find yourself sneaking off at midnight to grab a sneaky listen or two. Bonus points go to anyone who can absorb the whole thing in one sitting.
45. AUTRE NE VEUT
Since debuting in 2010, Arthur Ashin’s work as Autre Ne Veut has been divisive. Anxiety might not have changed any minds in that regard, but his latest album certainly took his self-described “failure pop” to new heights. As if tearfully belting Whitney Houston, power ballads, and mall pop in the shower, Ashin’s vocals make up for what they lack in precision with heart-on-sleeve emotion and the earnestness of a teenaged diary. While artists like How To Dress Well are turning pop conventions in on themselves, Autre Ne Veut goes for baroque – the pair of ‘Play By Play’ and ‘Counting’ is as strong as a one-two punch as you’ll hear all year.
44. FILTER DREAD
Filter Dread may have only been releasing music for two years, but he’s already proven prolific. Clustered with a 12” for Egyptian Avenue and several self-released EPs, Space Loops was one of two albums that the grime producer released in 2013, and although on the surface it’s just another (very good) series of dusty beats/sketches, when sequenced together this cassette takes on a personality and atmosphere of its very own – all Alien-esque snaps and squeals, Shackleton-in-space polyrhythms and creepy melodies in the Visionist and Zomby mould.
You’ve Never Been To Konotop (Selected Works 2009-12)
The much-trumpeted Ukranian’s slinky, jazzy house finally gets an album-length showcase. Putting his minor 2012 Vedomir LP aside, this clutch of unreleased recordings serves as Vakula’s official full-length debut – a Balkanised variant on Kenny Dixon Jr’s narcotised deep house, blessed with some of the rhythmic dexterity of classic Villalobos. The dozy sections are offbeat and hypnotic; the glitterball moments (‘New Romantic’) shimmer like coral. It didn’t seize everyone’s attention – and even its keenest advocates will concede it could probably do with a bit of trim – but, when it works, You’ve Never Been To Konotop is as strange and protean as mercury, and the work of a proper original.
Nothing Was The Same
Nothing Was the Same is far from a perfect album, but a flawed Drake record with moments of brilliance is still far better than so much else on offer, and you can’t fault his ambition. Drake’s attempt at a substantial, enduring statement, the album is a celebration of his past (now rooted in the Wu-Tang Clan, supposedly), and a prescient look at his potential legacy. It’s certainly not without flaws: Hov’s embarrassing verse on ‘Pound Cake’ undermines the album’s most outstanding instrumental, and, like its predecessor Take Care, the album is far too long for its own good.
But Drake also manages to stumble on some of the high points of his career, and his vocals have rarely sounded so good. Opener ‘Tuscan Leather’ shows a fresh lyrical competence, and it’s very hard to complain with the ‘Furthest Thing’/‘Started From the Bottom’/‘Wu-Tang Forever’ run. Overall, Nothing Was the Same is a decadent, confident record grazed by its self-conscious aspirations – in many ways the inverse of Jay-Z’s mind-numbingly pedestrian Magna Carta, Holy Grail. Obsessing over legacy, no matter how it’s framed, can all too often be the artist’s undoing – at least Drake has provided us with a pretty good record in the process.
A year without a Beyoncé or Rihanna album should have belonged to everyone’s favorite R&B underdog, but when early singles failed to move the needle, Ciara and company went back to the drawing board. The revolving door of songwriters and producers gives the album a patchwork feel, but when she’s on, she slays. Single Ladies anthem ‘I’m Out’, sultry grown-and-sexy jams like ‘Sophomore’ and ‘Keep On Lookin’, and even a straight-up pop ballad in ‘Where You Go’ prove that Ciara is a singer for all seasons. And although the last third falls flat due to unfortunate metaphors (‘DUI’, ‘Overdose’) and unnecessary dance-pop sheen (‘Livin’ It Up’, ‘Overdose’ again), we’ll always have ‘Body Party’.
His veins coursing with the last few years of Southern rap, young Baton Rouge producer suicideyear emerged seemingly from nowhere with the year’s most engaging exercise in re-appropriation. Elements of trap have been littered throughout much of 2013’s musical landscape, but few producers have captured that essence so thoughtfully and with such charm as suicideyear. Part of this success is simply down to the producer’s keen avoidance of bombast, and it’s refreshing to hear just how skeletal Japan is. It’s worlds apart from the tidal wave of 808 Mafia pastiches and jagged EDM synth wobbles; instead, Japan re-structures the sound entirely, then obscures it with a few wraps of bandage and gauze. This icy minimalism gives the album an eerie levity that sticks in the mind long after it comes to a close – expect big things in 2014.
39. KING LOUIE
From the first notes of its pitch-shifted sample of Chicago’s ‘Hard To Say I’m Sorry’ (see what they did there?), it’s clear that King Louie is ready to flip the script on Jeep Music. So while there’s plenty of Drilluminatic menace (‘Pose 2’, ‘Hit A Lick’), Louie is at his best when he gets in on the Autotune game. Louie pays tribute to R. Kelly and Usher respectively on slow jams ‘Jeep Music’ and ‘Nice & Slow’, but the finest moment is the very-2013 ‘So Many Hoes’. Over a trance-and-drill beat, Louie’s couplets melt together, whether blasé (“She stay in Prada so I call that bitch Prada / I don’t know her name, I know she like designer”) or bonkers (“OMG I got so many damn hoes / she got some hot head so I call that bitch candle”). Hell yes.
38. DONATO DOZZY
Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask
Ambient techno Groundhog Day. Commissioned to remix Bee Mask’s 2013 ‘Vaporware’, Dozzy reworked the same piece seven times over and packaged the results as a full album. Smart move: Plays Bee Mask is a lucent delight, often reminiscent of Vangelis’ gestural synth-paintings. Glossy ambient is the dominant mode, although Dozzy does switch things up as he tumbles through the changes, intermittently borrowing from kosmische (‘Vaporwave 05’) and drone (‘Vaporwave 02’). Its lushness is its Achilles heel – “sounds like Danny Elfman”, murmured one detractor, ruining the album for an afternoon in the process – but, even with a limited palette, Dozzy’s still painting with the brightest colours of his career to date. Double props for being the absolute inverse of the Skream “disco edit”.
Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out
Chicago’s had an exemplary year, and that’s not just thanks to Chief Keef’s GBE and their acolytes. There’s plenty more to the beleaguered Midwestern metropolis than rapid-fire snares and drunken Autotune, and Tree knows it. The gifted rapper/producer offers a filigree alternative to his city’s hard-edged sound, and injects the urgent beats with lilting vocal samples and tear-jerking snippets of dusty rhythm and blues 12”s. He’s labeled his genre “soul trap,” and it’s a fairly accurate descriptor – the tracks lose none of their street urgency, but sound fathoms deeper than his peers, and to be quite honest he’s the only one out there that could really make it work. It’s not only his production that’s outstanding, either: Tree’s voice itself is unmistakable, a battle-scarred and world-weary growl, dragging us on a moving journey through a city illustrated with clarity and flair. Sunday School Pt.2 might not have the garish bells and whistles or the endless hype of many of the other rap albums in 2013, but it’s a sleeper classic.
36. LAUREL HALO
Chance of Rain
The Michigan artist continued to dazzle and perplex this year, ditching the unadorned vocals of 2012’s ambient-pop dystopia Quarantine and leaning more heavily on the techno scaffolding of her EP output. Opening with a jazzy piano moment that underlines Halo’s classical background, Chance of Rain then falls headlong into gridlike rhythms that face constant interjections; corrosive noise blasts and noodling piano barge in uninvited, derailing the forward motion with tingling distractions and half-felt sensations, mirroring our own brains’ unravelling in the face of millennial information overload. New heights of trippy gorgeousness are reached on ‘Melt’ and ‘Ainnome’, while ‘Still/Dromos’ is an underwater ambient work that glitters like waves lapping at a Goan beach rave. Though it lapses once or twice into slightly mannered introspection, Chance of Rain is thankfully never tidy or uniform; always unpredictable, it sways and mutters and oozes in five directions at once.
35. MR MUTHAFUCKIN’ EXQUIRE
Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s eye has typically been on skirt, but he’s always been an expert navel-gazer too, his sloppy flow suggesting a grasp on reality about as firm as his (tenuous) hold on the beat. Kismet brings the New Yorker’s psychedelic tendencies to the fore, setting trembly confessionals over mystic jazz, psych-rock and deep purple head-nod. Kismet could do with more focus (a situation not ameliorated by the 32-track expanded Blue edition), but it’s also the most convincing evidence yet of eX’s knack for finding hooks in impossible places; for the most part, it’s a joy watching him lurch over these fantastical landscapes. Weird Ozwald Boateng cameo, too.
34. ONEOHTRIX POINT NEVER
R Plus Seven
Like any paid-up music nerd worth his salt, Lopatin is constantly looking to redefine his focus, and R Plus Seven is his most unpredictable and artistically successful body of work to date. Sure, it’s nowhere near as floral and candy-coated as its predecessors (yep, even 2011’s dusty Returnal), but, within the choppy rhythms and shattered electronics, there’s a vulnerable humanity that can be hard to come across in the drab world of conceptual electronic music. By not limiting himself to a palette gleaned from established nodes of musical cool, Lopatin’s soup of brittle synthesizer sounds, jarring (and occasionally gross) samples and well-handled satire makes R Plus Seven one of the deepest and most impenetrable records of the year. Who needs blissful Juno 60 arpeggios anyway?
33. ROLY PORTER
Life Cycle of a Massive Star
Previously the driving force behind dubstep’s darkest operators, Vex’d, Porter punted further down the Styx on 2011’s grand Aftertime. His follow-up shares a lot of its predecessor’s interests – modern classical, dark ambient, Pan Sonic’s Judas cradle frequencies – but proves the punchier and steelier of the two. On highlights like ‘Cloud’ and ‘Giant’, Life Cycle Of A Massive Star is reminiscent of Ben Frost’s best releases – and a good few light years ahead of Tim Hecker’s (deliriously well-received) recent work, too. Being a capital-C concept album, excess sobriety is an issue at points, but, at a tight 40-odd minutes, Life Cycle… is concise enough to circumnavigate the yawning black hole of pomposity.
32. FKA TWIGS
After pairing up with UNO NYC producer Arca (whose own &&&&& mix this year consolidated his reputation as a uniquely weird production talent), Gloucestershire-born FKA twigs made her own grand splash with EP2 – 15 minutes of head-spinning psychosexual drama carried by lustrous, weighty beats and an ethereal voice that blooms and disintegrates like shisha smoke. Massive Attack and Tricky are the obvious touchstones, but EP2 is just so strange, with twigs’ introspective, almost uncomfortably frank lyrics taking flight across fragmented melodies. One of the year’s most intriguing newcomers.
31. HUERCO S
An album of dub techno in 2013 is a risky proposition. Thankfully, Brian Leeds’ debut album manages to avoid many of the genre’s annoying (and, at this stage, extremely overdone) signifiers, and offers a fresh take on a well-worn sound. It would be doing Colonial Patterns a disservice to lump it in with 2013’s legion of ‘outsider house’ albums too, as here Leeds’ noisier elements seem simply to act as an extension of Mark Ernestus’ and Moritz Von Oswald’s hiss-drenched run rather than an attempt to mirror the perceived success of Container or Pete Swanson. It’s too easy these days to slap a layer of hiss and some distortion on some half-baked dusty 4/4s and call it a day, so to hear a record of soupy synthesizer loops, jumpy rhythms and hypnotic textures engineered that way for a valid reason is an all-too-rare treat.
30. EARL SWEATSHIRT
Rarely are debut albums by 19-year-olds as eagerly awaited as Doris, but in his short career, Earl Sweatshirt has never bowed to convention. Determined to lose the fans that latched onto the rape-and-murder fantasies of his first mixtape, Earl pressed his syllable-heavy wordplay in service of songs about his complicated family life, Odd Future antics, and the mundanities of LA life. Even with his teenaged angst and self-doubt, Earl is supremely confident, both in his lyrics and his creative choices, working with his idols (RZA and Pharrell) with the same ease as his contemporaries (Tyler, Frank Ocean, Vince Staples). As dense as a black hole, it’s the year’s best throwback to rapping-ass-rapping and off-kilter beats.
29. THESE NEW PURITANS
Field Of Reeds
The Southend nonpareils waded into unexplored territory on their third album, leaving behind the bombast and belligerence of 2010’s Hidden to alight on a mood of salty-aired tranquility. But the gentle eddy and whirl of clarinet, piano and strings is constantly offset by disturbing alien elements, from the songs’ unintuitive melodies to the scattering of electronic burbles and a basso profundo voice said to be the lowest in the country. Though comparisons to English eccentrics like Talk Talk, Coil and Robert Wyatt were chewed over by some reviewers, Field of Reeds lacks any obvious forebears; its marriage of modern classical manners and post-punk impulses has birthed a sound all of its own.
28. DANNY BROWN
For sheer pig-headed determination alone, Danny Brown deserves a place on this year’s list. Thankfully, the hard-grafting, hard-living rapper also delivered one of the most ambitious records of 2013, cementing his place as a ferociously fresh talent at the ripe old age of 32. Aside from its impressive strike rate (three or four misfires over 19 tracks), Old feels significant for its international cast of characters, with the production workload evenly divided between the UK (dusty psychedelia from Paul White, amped-up mentalism from Rustie and Darq E Freaker) and the US (Brown’s co-conspirator Skywlkr and Stones Throw’s Oh No), not to mention the oddball collaborations with Purity Ring and Charli XCX.
27. RON MORELLI
“Outsider house” was more in the spotlight than ever this year, but for all the term’s silliness, where it most falls down is in its implication that you need to be some CDR-flogging noise weirdo from Kansas to appreciate the blank canvas for experimentation that a 4×4 kick pattern provides. It’s an attitude that can be traced back to classic Detroit, through ’90s/’00s producers like Maurice Fulton and, more recently, the likes of Space Dimension Controller and Untold. L.I.E.S.’ Ron Morelli simply does what should come naturally at this point: using 4×4 as a grid to smear with ideas from the lowest depths of your shitty subconscious. This is grizzled music that shares more in common with drone and grindcore’s hypnotism-through-heaviness and the inner city paranoia of Suicide than most modern-day house, cut with rat poison and best delivered late at night with a side order of regret. Even when Spit strays close to the dancefloor, such as on the blurry thump of ‘No Real Reason’, you’ll still need a shower to shake off the self-loathing.
A Blink Of An Eye
In a year where techno full-lengths tended to be mardy or sullen, this set of pranging electro-funk from Maurice Fulton and (imaginary) friends was a serious morale-booster. A Blink Of An Eye doesn’t offer much that 2008’s exceptional I’ve Got My Eye On You – a very capable contender for the best album DFA ever put out, incidentally – doesn’t already provide, but when your mission statement is to sound like the grooviest fax machine in the world, it’s churlish to split hairs. As ever with Fulton, it’s the human swing that gives A Blink Of An Eye its character – the percussion work is loose and lithe, and the exuberant (and, sometimes, cheesy) Latin elements add a welcome glug of Ron Zacapa to the mix.
The Near Future
(The Trilogy Tapes)
Sad fact, but records whelped right at the start of the year often don’t survive through to the winter. Dropping right on the 2012/2013 faultline, The Near Future was just about the first release of the year we got properly excited about – and the fact it’s lingered in the memory is testament to what a hardy little pup it is. Nominally a techno record – MGUN came up under the wing of Underground Resistance’s Interstellar Fugitives programme – The Near Future is actually a much more diverse proposition, channelling Drexciya’s slipperiness (‘2’), Dilla’s lope (‘Walk With Me’), and, more than anything else, Carl Craig’s restless cross-genre play (er, take your pick). Amidst a number of strong records from Detroit’s young breed (Kyle Hall’s The Boat Party; Jay Daniel’s highly promising Scorpio Rising, MGUN’s own run of 2013 EPs), it’s the plucky stand-out.
24. GRUMBLING FUR
For all its sporadic pop moments, Grumbling Fur’s second album is a mysterious little critter. Like a meteorite unearthed from a mossy crag in an English garden, it’s at once ancient and modern, domestic and cosmic. Alexander Tucker’s luxuriant cello washes bind Daniel O’Sullivan’s revolving synth shapes and found sound collages into a psychedelic voyage that balances darkness (‘The Hound’, ‘His Moody Faith’) with revelatory, quasi-spiritual light – and who else this year has pulled off a hymnal ode to Blade Runner’s replicant anti-hero Roy Batty?
23. CHANCE THE RAPPER
Chance the Rapper emerged like a fully-armed Athena springing forth from Zeus’s forehead, ready to fill a void on the hip-hop landscape. Inspired by and reminiscent of the youthful spirit of College Dropout-era Kanye West, Chance offered the type of exuberance often missing from rap in 2013. Chance’s playful, elastic voice is at home on windswept ballads (‘Lost’), trunk-rattling weed anthems (‘Smoke Again’), stealth dance tracks (‘Chain Smoker’) and everything in between. While it’s not all fun and games (‘Pusha Man’ takes on Chicago’s crime wave with a light touch), Acid Rap is the perfect soundtrack for an acid-dropping summer barbecue.
22. THE HOUSE IN THE WOODS
Hypnopomp and circumstance. As Pye Corner Audio, Martin Jenkins produces crawling electronica with a pinkish glow, but his The House In The Woods output is a much groggier proposition. Unlike the sylvan vales of his Ghost Box work, this debut LP is music for foggy moors – stately drone pieces, made from the mulch of heavily processed field recordings. The results are stunning, frankly – sometimes beatless, sometimes scored by a kick as delicate as an grasshopper’s heartbeat, but always heavy with a sense of drama and danger. If you’ve been huffing GAS for years, you needs a whiff of this – and soon.
Through The Window
(Blackest Ever Black)
Countless words have been used to describe Prurient’s music over the years, but until 2013, “slinky” and “sexy” were firmly in the West End dress code lexicon before anything associated with Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. That all changed with Through the Window, an accompaniment to Prurient’s breathtaking 2011 album Bermuda Drain that saw the long-suffering noise icon set his sights on moonlit drives through Paris. To an extent, yes, this was Prurient doing techno – something he’s pursued at length with the Vatican Shadow project – but compared to Vatican’s greyscale tones and blurred edges, Through the Window was razor-sharp and at times horrifically lurid.
(Goon Club Allstars)
Released late in November, the debut EP from MssingNo – a publicity-shy artist previously only known for his productions for UK rapper Cas – neatly tied together two of 2013’s defining trends: resurgent levels of creativity in instrumental grime, and a dialogue between the UK and US that’s found a rewarding balance through releases like Kelela’s Cut 4 Me and Visionist’s I’m Fine. Grime has always had half an eye on the US (see the reverence for Diplomats that circulated the scene in 2005-2006), but few recent releases have combined tropes from both sides of the Atlantic so successfully: Rihanna, R. Kelly and Shawty Redd-esque drum patterns meet Reese basslines, tube-station-at-midnight pads and fiery synth leads, with the glistening, perfectly still ‘XE2’ as the EP’s centrepiece.
19. DJ MUSTARD
For the past couple of years, DJ Mustard’s brand of jerkin-meets-hyphy-meets-snap simplicity has powered club hits like Tyga’s ‘Rack City’, 2 Chainz’s ‘I’m Different’, and Young Jeezy’s ‘R.I.P’. In 2013, when — for better or for worse — everyone was getting ratchet, turning up, and twerking, the producer born Dijon McFarlane was the master of the function. His first mixtape is a survey of the scene, with frequent collaborators like YG, Ty Dolla $ign, TeeFlii, and Dorrough along for the ride. The fact that Ketchup bangs this hard without including YG’s massive ‘My Nigga’ or TeeFlii’s ‘This D’ speaks volumes.
(The Death of Rave)
Oscar Powell has been one of 2013’s most promising producers and DJs, and it says a lot that he was nominated several times in our mid-year track of the year polls, but never for the same track. Powell’s untitled four-track EP for The Death of Rave shades it as the stand-out release of a strong 2013: more post-punk than post-dubstep, from the shy rockabilly of ‘A Band’ to the muffled house of ‘Oh No New York’, it it rocked, rolled and weirded us out in equal measures.
Twists and Turns
After a two-year musical hiatus, Jack “Mumdance” Adams returned with a hardware-assembled collection of (then) unreleased material, a nearly-50-minute set that takes more than its share of titular twists and turns. Drawing upon the UK electronic music of his youth, Mumdance (along with collaborators Logos and Mao) was inspired by grime, hardcore, and shoegaze but never beholden to it. From its wall-of-sound intro to its maximalist finale, Twists & Turns is a powerhouse set of glass-breaking percussion, sub-bass rumble, backmasked synths and more. With instrumental grime the order of the day, it was a treat to hear Mumdance return to the scene, refreshed and revitalized. Thankfully, most of this material has surfaced elsewhere, as his work with Logos has proved especially potent: ‘Turrican 2’ and ‘Move Your Body’ still keep us up at night.
16. JAMES HOLDEN
Seven years on from his debut album The Idiots Are Winning (which was more of an odds’n’sods compilation than a statement of intent anyway), James Holden turned in what we won’t hesitate to call his magnum opus. Sprawling, untamed and teeming with microscopic life, The Inheritors is the antithesis of the hygienic electronica that inexplicably wormed into critics’ ears this year, and bears little relation to any other fashion or whimsy in the dance milieu of late. The 15 tracks aren’t so much composed as chanced upon, birthed from chaotic systems that constantly threaten to spill over or collapse entirely, evolving and mutating like cells in a Petri dish. What with the rune-like artwork and Holden’s own references to “ancient pagan rituals”, The Inheritors seems to posit a kind of electronic folk music – bear with him – that is danceable (mostly), yet exists in a parallel universe to the insular lineage of ‘dance music’. This is trance for the shaman in his cave, not the saucer-eyed at the rave.
15. ROME FORTUNE
In many ways, 2013 has been a victory lap for Atlanta, as the city watched the neon-lit snap of its notorious strip clubs travel far beyond Georgia state lines to dominate the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (we see you, Miley). It was refreshing, then, to hear one of the city’s sons take a closer look at the sound and rebuild it from the ground up. Assisted by ascendant ‘New Atlanta’ producers Childish Major (yep, he did ‘U.O.E.N.O.’, arguably the city’s biggest breakout of the year), DunDeal, C4 and DJ Spinz, Rome rustled up an album that for many of us filled a gaping chasm. It’s open-minded, fresh and unusual, and beneath the quick-thinking lyrics and forward-thinking selection of beats, there’s a set of tunes that thankfully aren’t scorched by their ambition.
Synth-driven smash ‘Ice Cream Man’ is probably the focal point, and offers a melancholy foil to Atlanta’s steady drip of electric drug anthems without lazily sinking into the tired whimper of Drake and his legion of #sadboy drones. It’s the fact that Rome can poise his more reflective moments next to stone-cold club killers like ‘Get The Guap’ and ‘Clockin’ that gives Beautiful Pimp its edge, though – it’s safe to say that in a year overloaded with exciting rap talent, Rome has positioned himself as one of his city’s true originals.
The Weighing of the Heart
(Second Language Music)
Of all the artists we expected to make a comeback in 2013, Colleen wasn’t even on the long-list. Her softly spoken electro-acoustic experiments have always been worthy of closer inspection, but The Weighing of the Heart sounds as if a flaming beacon she has long been moving towards has finally been reached. Cecile Schott manages, somehow, to fuse a set of worryingly lofty ideas (and even loftier influences) and chances upon a set of songs that are coherent, elegant and wonderfully devoid of flash. It’s an album you might have to listen to three or four times before the layers of dust fall off, and in an era fixated by instant gratification, that’s a rare and impressive trait. Schott’s total avoidance of established trends is equally admirable, and The Weighing of the Heart is maybe the least idiomatic record in our entire list. Instead, it stands somewhere out on its own – probably in a deserted garden, just after midnight.
A comment stating that Cold Mission sounds pretty much like to having only one headphone plugged in while walking down the street at night isn’t too far off the mark. The thing is, the album is oppressively minimal for a reason – it’s littered with hints, clues and sly winks, and if you’re listening carefully enough, your accumulated listening knowledge should fill in the gaps. That’s why ‘Statis Jam’ can conjure up memories of Logical Progression and ‘Misty Cold’ simultaneously while not sounding exactly like anything we’ve heard before, and why ‘Seawolf’ bangs so hard without technically kicking off in the first place. It probably sounds significantly different to each person listening; sometimes all the brain needs is a nudge in the right direction, and Cold Mission is an album of nudges and nods. If Jam City’s Classical Curves was Studio 54 seen through the curtains of an East London flat, Cold Mission is its self-aware, inward-looking cousin.
12. JAI PAUL
(God knows who)
Sod BoC or Bowie – for a particular breed of messageboard grubber, this was the great Gotcha! release of the year. Appearing without warning on a Bandcamp page attributed to Paul, it briefly looked like alt.pop’s answer to Harry Lime had finally dropped his endlessly-awaited debut album – at least until XL came through to confirm that this odds’n’sods collection was a leak (and a rather sinister one at that too).
In a way, it’s ironic that this demo collection leaked, since Paul’s music is so heavily encrypted – there’s not a hook, lick or beat that isn’t given some sort of clever topspin, that isn’t nudged a couple of millimetres out of whack. The strongest tracks are the hyperactive ones – see the Bollywood-cribbing opener, or blogland standard ‘BTSTU’, convulsive tracks that eat themselves in real-time. The softer moments are lovely too, and the frowzy, half-finished production suits the material down to the ground. It’s anyone’s guess whether these stems and shards are destined for Paul’s XL debut or his Recycling Bin (or, perhaps most likely of all, Kanye’s next album) – but it’s hard to imagine Paul improving on this set of scruffy captcha pop. We could have done without the permaglib cover of Jennifer Paige’s ‘Crush’, but hey – such is the way of the bootleg.
The Night’s Gambit
He may “not want a million boyband fans”, but Brownsville veteran Ka’s third solo album saw the rapper’s status reach new levels regardless. Ka has slogged his way through the New York underground since the early ’90s, self-releasing (and self-distributing – his FACT interview contains a particularly heart-wrenching tale of selling his albums by hand) authoritative lessons in desolate, twilit hip-hop, and The Night’s Gambit was the moment where the wider world finally started to take notice and smell the sweat. If there’s one point where The Night’s Gambit falls down it’s closing track ‘Off the Record’, a reverent run-down of classic hip-hop albums as rap punchlines, but like Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City‘s ‘Compton’, it feels like a victory lap well-earned. Screw Kanye and Em, there’s only one Rap God on this list.
Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself
European eyes are trained once again on the U.S. Midwest to show them the origins of a sound that many thought had long ago boiled away, but that hardly matters to Omar-S. The Detroit mainstay operates outside of the public’s perception and always has done. Hell, if you want to get hold of his 12”s, you’ve got to go straight to the source and mail-order it directly from the man himself (unless, that is, you’re prepared to pay for a store to do that for you), and this personal touch is maybe the key to understanding his sound.
Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself is a testament to Omar’s steely independence and unshakable vision – there’s little here that’s particularly removed from the rest of his (excellent) catalogue, it’s simply a meat and potatoes selection of 14 reasons why we care. The melodies are refreshingly distant, the beats endearingly clattery, and the mood characteristically memorable. It’s the essence of Detroit, distilled by one of its most important contemporary practitioners. Throw away your Disclosure records and buy this instead – you won’t be sorry.
09. DJ RASHAD
Rashad needs an editor: look at this year’s Double Cup LP, which definitely runneth about 15 minutes over. But we’ll always have the Rollin’ EP – a neat little package that’s zipped well ahead of RP Boo’s Legacy in the race for footwork release of the year. Rashad’s maiden Hyperdub disc is a tight four of gossamer footwork, with the producer not putting a foot out of place for a second. It’s plainly his best work to date: peep velveteen Spinn collab ‘Broken Hearted’, ‘Rollin”s sadboy shuffle, and the endless paradiddles of ‘Drums Please’. And it’s very, very difficult to quibble with ‘Let It Go’ – a brilliant bit of pen-pal jungle, four-odd years after footwork first goosed the UK club scene.
08. LIL UGLY MANE
Three-Sided Tape Vol. 1
Never one to play the game by the rules, Virginia producer, rapper and graphic artist Shawn Kemp (which may or may not be his real name) provides one of the least conventional releases on this year’s list in the shape of his pay-what-you-want Bandcamp release Three Sided Tape. Each of those three ‘sides’, which average around 20 minutes, is a schizophrenic tapestry of wonky soul edits, satin-smooth jams, gangsta rap nonsense rhymes, throwback jungle breaks, grinding noise – all of this and more, and all of it done with astonishing skill and taste. Just like a cassette mixtape, there’s no easy fast-forwarding to your favourite bits – and why would you want to? A second volume (also excellent) followed just a few days later, but Volume One pips it for the majestic ‘Jesus Piece’, the ridiculous gangsta anthem ‘Forever I B Stangin’, and the captivating voice of a motor-mouthed kid extracted from a thrift store cassette.
07. KEVIN GATES
The Luca Brasi Story
Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates broke out in a big way in 2013, and it was hard not to admire his work ethic – he put out two mixtapes over the course of the year, and both run rings around most of the competition. The Luca Brasi Story is a hair better than its follow-up Stranger Than Fiction, but it’s a close call. Both find Gates building on his considerable regional success, and both are easily as ambitious and as well manicured as ‘proper’ albums, but it’s The Luca Brasi Story that manages to capture Gates’ range slightly more accurately.
The Luca Brasi Story is a rare contemporary rap record in that the production is a sideline. That’s not to suggest that the accompaniments are weak by any means, but when you’re listening to The Luca Brasi Story, it’s Gates’ witty lyricism and complex personality that drag you in with both hands, whether he’s endearingly explaining his love of The Notebook and Twilight or painstakingly recounting detailed accounts of an existence that’s left him irreparably damaged. Gates ostracizes himself from his peers not only because he sounds tonally unique, but also because he shines a light on the isolation and mental conflict of ghetto life far more authoritatively and engagingly than anyone else in the game right now. And yes, that includes Kendrick.
06. STELLAR OM SOURCE
Joy One Mile
Not so very long ago, Christelle Gualdi belonged to the same twinkly-eyed set as Emeralds (R.I.P.) and early OPN , producing elliptical synth-drift for mopes and couchsurfers. The last 12 months, however, have heralded a Cyrus-style metamorphosis: out with the private press new age, in with second wave Detroit bosh-bosh. Joy One Mile is the result: a thrillingly fluid techno LP that flagrantly bites its thumb at the grid. Developing ideas first heard on her gorgeous 2012 Image Over Image EP, Joy One Mile offers quicksilver acid that constantly hornswoggles the listener – ideas rarely hang around longer than eight bars, and the best tracks (‘Elite Excel’, ‘Polarity’) often feel like three cuts bundled into one. Kassem Mosse’s mixdown helps lifts the pieces to new places, adding a crystalline sheen to these gruff, grubby hardware workouts.
Cut 4 Me
(Fade To Mind)
Cut 4 Me is a game changer. In the way that the Aaliyah-Timbaland-Missy Elliott axis set a high watermark for r’n’b more than a decade earlier, Kelela and her Night Slugs/Fade to Mind collaborators have re-written the rulebook. While her peers hid behind the haze of post-Weeknd wooziness, shamelessly aped ’90s stylings, or continued down well-worn, rap-facing pathways, Kelela bared her soul with a one-in-a-million vitality and a sound unlike anyone else.
Cut 4 Me is at times sexual, violent, delicate, mysterious, challenging, and transcendent. The crown jewel of Fade to Mind’s breakthrough year, Kelela literally become the voice for a generation of electronic music’s most forward-thinking talents. “We wanted to make a bold new statement for r’n’b,” label head Kingdom told FACT, “and I think it worked out.” Understatement of the year.
04. GALCHER LUSTWERK
(Blowing Up The Workshop)
On paper, 100% Galcher is merely a podcast for Matthew Kent’s Blowing Up The Workshop series, but across the last six months it’s come to mean so much more. Originally designed as an un-mixed, hip-hop-style mixtape of unreleased material, New York-based producer Galcher Lustwerk decided to instead mix a year plus’s worth of tracks and stems into an hour-long set – one that we’ve come to treat as an album in its own right. For all 2013’s talk of deep-not-deep house, this is the antidote: evoking Burial’s post-rave drug mist, the painfully cool tragedy of Dean Blunt, the smouldering romanticism of Chicago house and the lost greyscale nights of House of Balloons, all shot through alabaster mist with chalk scraped across the lens. No other hour of music in 2013 made hooks this great seem this effortless – album or mix.
03. KANYE WEST
No one divided opinion in 2013 like Kanye West. In FACT’s review of 2011’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s then-career high and the Chicago rapper’s own personal redemption story in the face of public humiliation from the President and the proletariat alike, we asked how the hell West could even follow an album that plunged such depths and scaled such highs. The answer? Yeezus, a 40-minute punk-rap album backed by one of the most impressive production teams in hip-hop history – so impressive, in fact, that Rick Rubin, Hudson Mohwake, Mike Dean, No ID and Daft Punk aren’t even half the story.
Call it Rubin’s influence, perhaps, but what’s most punk about Yeezus isn’t just its harsh sonics – it’s the fact that, both sonically and lyrically, the album is never once over-thought. Backing tracks are arranged with little-to-no reverb blending their edges – no blurred lines here, just sharp turn after sharp turn – while five of Kanye’s vocal performances, as Rubin has revealed in post-Yeezus interviews, were written and recorded in the space of two hours. This isn’t to say there’s no thought gone into Yeezus – it’s an album full of vulgar, often haunting, symbolism, from Chief Keef’s appearance on ‘Hold My Liquor’ to ‘I’m In It”s infamous centrepiece lyric, which brings together the record’s two main themes (Kanye’s assault on white America and sex) to stomach-churning effect – but it’s the emphasis on instinct and directness that really makes it punch.
As with everything Kanye – not to mention thousands of less talented, less ambitious artists that don’t get called out on it – does, there’s an element of ego-boost to Yeezus. Before anything though, this is West’s personal quest to distort, subvert and fuck the life out of white America. It’s a message that’s often itself distorted, and for every brilliant sexual humiliation of a Hamptons resident there’s a clumsy personal kink around the corner (hide the sweet and sour sauce next time Kanye’s hungry, people). Most obviously, there’s the ‘Bound 2’ video, an attempt to claim comfy flyover state tie-dye kitten calendar bullshit as Kanye’s own, which doesn’t quite work due to its – deliberately or not – clumsy execution. But God forbid people have to work a little to find the message in Kanye’s work, right? All hail Yeezus – man of the year and hip-hop’s stupidest genius. Long may he reign.
02. SKY FERREIRA
Night Time, My Time
When describing Night Time, My Time, “long-awaited” doesn’t seem to suffice. After enduring more than three years of label struggles, it was beginning to look like Sky Ferreira would be another casualty of the pop industry. But after finally being able to record and release a debut album on her own terms, Ferreira delivered something whose sound is barely hinted at on her earlier music. Night Time, My Time rejects her forays into dance-pop and ’80s-styled balladry in favour of blistering grunge-pop sing-alongs where each fuzzy lick is paired with an arena-ready hook.
Surprisingly noisy and without the standard issue pop sheen, Ferreira certainly has — if not a “heavy metal heart” — a ’90s alt-rock one. Most impressive, though, is the poise with which Ferreira asserts herself as a millennial pop star, one whose entire life has played out online and whose career has been plagued by industry gatekeepers that would make Kanye weep. Night Time, My Time is both a cognizant critique of celebrity culture and a timeless statement on the folly (and promise) of youth. It’s also the most fun you’ll have all year: if ‘24 Hours’, ‘You’re Not The One’, or ‘Nobody Asked Me (If I Was OK)’ don’t hit your nostalgia nerve, we feel sorry for you.
01. DEAN BLUNT
(Hippos In Tanks)
Wide-eyed sincerity, it’s safe to say, never came easy to Hype Williams: consider the tracks named after Wiley lyrics, the Drake fudge-jobs, the ridiculous press shots, etc. For all the pranking, though, the “art-school mischief” tag never quite washed either. From ‘The Throning”s gorgeous Sade-in-a-barrel job to the muddled pop of their Hyperdub debut, Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s music has always had an obvious sweet streak. This was clearer than ever on Blunt’s 2012 mixtape The Narcissist – a set of sozzled exotica and low-lit lounge music, a Serge Gainsbourg LP stamped with the footprints of pink elephants. This is how Blunt operates: one moment he’s giggling behind your back, the next he’s crying on your shoulder.
These two impulses (sleight-of-hand vs. uplifted palms) reach a perfect balance on The Redeemer – a grand neurasthenic love story, told by a hangdog in a side-swoosh cap. Blunt’s official solo debut is a proper olio – a dizzying collage of chamber-pop, junkyard noise and ambient music that invites you into its world but bristles when you get too close. There are precedents: World Of Echo; Aidan John Moffat’s priapic album-poem I Can Hear Your Heart; Otis G. Johnson’s Everything “God is Love”, whose cover art it references. But, really, we’ve never heard a heartbreak album quite like it.
The Redeemer is a record fixated on the ambiguities of falling in (or out) of love: thwarted opportunities, misread signals, botched gestures of affection, dark mornings of the soul. Musically, it’s footloose – some old, some new, some borrowed, pretty much all of it blue. The lo-fi scribbles and hypnagogic songs will be familiar to Hype Williams fans; the Sabbath swipes (‘All Dogs Go To Heaven’) and withered slow-jams (‘Make It Official’) less so. Best of all are the red-eyed soul pieces – ‘Papi’, ‘Imperial Gold’ and ‘The Redeemer’ are simply some of the most stunning tracks we’ve encountered all year. For every torch song, though, there’s a wick-snuffing skit or weirdo interlude. You’re never quite sure if Blunt is winking or drowning, and the results make for a fantastically rich and nuanced listen.
The Redeemer is tricksy, intermittently tender, erratic, emotionally evasive, full of contradictions – and, as such, about as close a tribute to the warp and weft of a dodgy relationship as you’ll chance upon. Black might be beautiful, but there’s a lot to be said for grey areas.
The List in Full (Plain Text):
01. Dean Blunt – The Redeemer (Hippos In Tanks)
02. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (Capitol)
03. Kanye West – Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
04. Galcher Lustwerk – 100% Galcher (Blowing Up The Workshop)
05. Kelela – Cut 4 Me (Fade To Mind)
06. Stellar OM Source – Joy One Mile (RVNG Intl)
07. Kevin Gates – The Luca Brasi Story (Self-released)
08. Lil Ugly Mane – The Three-Sided Tape Vol. 1 (Self-released)
09. DJ Rashad – Rollin’ (Hyperdub)
10. Omar-S – Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself (FXHE)
11. Ka – The Night’s Gambit (Iron Works)
12. Jai Paul – Leaked Demos (God knows who)
13. Logos – Cold Mission (Keysound)
14. Colleen – The Weighing of the Heart (Second Language Music)
15. Rome Fortune – Beautiful Pimp (Self-released)
16. James Holden – The Inheritors (Border Community)
17. Mumdance – Twists and Turns (Self-released)
18. Powell – Untitled (The Death of Rave)
19. DJ Mustard – Ketchup (Self-released)
20. MssingNo – MssingNo (Goon Club Allstars)
21. Prurient – Through The Window (Blackest Ever Black)
22. The House In The Woods – Bucolica (Exotic Pylon)
23. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap (self-released)
24. Grumbling Fur – Glynnaestra (Thrill Jockey)
25. MGUN – The Near Future EP (The Trilogy Tapes)
26. Syclops – A Blink of an Eye (Running Back)
27. Ron Morelli – Spit (Hospital Productions)
28. Danny Brown – Old (Fool’s Gold)
29. These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds (Infectious)
30. Earl Sweatshirt – Doris (Columbia)
31. Huerco S – Colonial Patterns (Software)
32. FKA twigs – EP2 (Young Turks)
33. Roly Porter – Life Cycle of a Massive Star (Subtext)
34. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven (Warp)
35. Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire – Kismet (Self-released)
36. Laurel Halo – Chance Of Rain (Hyperdub)
37. Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out (Self-released)
38. Donato Dozzy – Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask (Spectrum Spools)
39. King Louie – Jeep Music (Self-released)
40. suicideyear – Japan (Self-released)
41. Ciara – Ciara (Epic)
42. Drake – Nothing Was The Same (Young Money/Island)
43. Vakula – You’ve Never Been To Konotop (Selected 2009-12) (Firecracker)
44. Filter Dread – Space Loops (No Corner)
45. Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety (Software)
46. Autechre – Exai (Warp)
47. Friendzone – DX (Self-released)
48. The Knife – Shaking The Habitual (Brille)
49. Miley Cyrus – Bangerz (RCA)
50. Cream Juice – Man Feelings (Orange Milk)